Jill Abelson—a yoga instructor, teacher trainer, author and workshop presenter—had been practicing yoga for over two decades. But one day, while easing her way into a headstand at a yoga studio in Miami, the seasoned yogi tweaked her neck and ended up in the E.R. a few hours later. Not long before that, Jill had suffered another yoga-related injury when an instructor over-adjusted her neck, accidentally pinching a nerve in her left arm.
We tend to view yoga as a gentle, restorative exercise, one that heals the body rather than breaking it down. But as the practice of yoga continues to explode in popularity, spawning more vigorous and athletic offshoots, downward doggers are becoming saddled with yoga-related injuries—from minor wrist tendonitis to neck injuries to, in rare cases, sciatic nerve damage.
“There’s something serious going on in the world of yoga,” says Abelson, an Advanced Certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher and renowned expert on alignment, injury prevention and hands-on assists. “Injuries are becoming more and more common, and we need to figure out why this is happening.”
Abelson suspects that there are three reasons for the rise in yoga-related injuries. One culprit, she thinks, is the shifting economics of yoga. Once a fringe practice, yoga has morphed into a moneymaking industry, with studios seeing a revolving door of clients daily. A recent survey indicates that a whooping 20 million Americans are rolling out their mats in an effort to reap the well-documented mind-body benefits of yoga. And almost half of these yogis—45 percent—identify themselves as beginners.
“Historically, yoga was a tradition in which instructors catered to individual students. It was one teacher, one student,” Abelson says. “It was a much more personal relationship. You got to know the student over time…you got to know their body and their normal range of motion.”
But as yoga moves towards a volume-based business, with larger class formats and less one-on-one instruction, newbies aren’t always getting the individualized attention that they need. At some trendy studios, it’s not uncommon to see 100 students crammed into a classroom, Abelson notes. Coupled with the fact that newly-certified, less-experienced yoga instructors are flooding the workforce in droves, many yogis simply aren’t getting the proper instruction they need.
“It creates a challenging situation, both for the students in the room and for the teachers who are responsible for the whole group,” Abelson says. “You’ll go to a group class and see people who have no idea what’s going on, but they’re not getting the right attention.”
Additionally, some of the more vigorous styles of yoga—such as Bikram or power yoga—can foster a competitive environment and a “no pain, no gain” mentality. In order to keep up with the more flexible or experienced students in class, overzealous yogis might force their bodies into unnatural contortions, potentially leading to injury.
Abelson has identified two categories of injuries that arise from yoga. The first type is “immediate” injuries, which happen on the spot. These include pinched nerves, torn hamstrings, neck injuries and so forth. The second, more common type is called progressive injuries, and they develop over a period of time, usually due to overuse.
“As a teacher, the most common injuries I’ve seen are progressive injuries of the wrists, shoulders and lower back, correlating to Sun Salutations overdone and executed incorrectly over a long period of time,” Jill says.
So does this mean that you should steer clear from yoga? Of course not. Any physical activity, whether it be hockey or cycling or yoga, inherently poses risk of injury. When practiced correctly and safely, yoga can do a body good in many ways. It promotes increased flexibility, sculpts a stronger core, eases lower back pain, and lengthens and tones the muscles. Not to mention, yoga boasts some stellar psychological outcomes, from sunnier outlooks to better bedroom performance to more quality shut-eye.
Still, as with most things, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Below, Abelson offers some guidelines to minimize injury risk during your yoga practice.
Choose a class level that’s appropriate for you. Many beginners sign up for advanced or mixed-level classes that aren’t suitable for their level of experience, Abelson says. “People think, ‘Oh, I’m fit and athletic—I don’t need a beginner class,’” she says. “But in the big, mixed level classes, you’re not going to get the individualized attention you need.” If you’re a first-timer, it’s important to take a beginner-level class so that you can learn the basic poses and establish a good foundation for your practice. “Just like you wouldn’t go to an intermediate German class when you only know a few words of German, you have to start with a style of yoga that’s right for you,” Abelson adds.
Leave your ego behind. Don’t focus on what the person next to you is doing. Yoga is about a culture of acceptance. Work at your own pace, be realistic about your abilities, and accept your limitations. If you try to achieve a “perfect” pose, you might push yourself toward injury.
Begin with the basics. Right off the bat, it’s important to know the proper alignment for the most common poses. If you’re taking a Vinyasa style class, this would include chatarunga, downward-facing dog, warriors 1 and 2, and triangle pose. “Knowing the correct alignment and the correct details really matters. It helps you to work independently and safely during class,” Abelson says.
Listen to your body. This is true of all athletic activities, but especially yoga. Yoga is all about cultivating mindfulness of the breath and the body. Know when your body’s telling you to ease up, and never push yourself past your limits. “Students really have to accountable for their own bodies,” Abelson adds.
Ask for help. “If you need modifications or want a certain pose broken down, don’t be afraid to approach the teacher after class and ask them to walk you through it,” Abelson says.
Don’t be afraid to use props or modifications. Beginners might not be flexible or strong enough to perform certain poses. “There’s no shame in using props—they can help you go deeper into the pose,” Abelson says. Likewise, you shouldn’t be afraid to modify certain challenging poses (for example, lowering onto your knees during chatarunga).
Ultimately, although it carries a slight risk of injury, yoga’s benefits far outweigh its risks. Even though yoga is the workout du jour, chances are this 5,000-year old practice will be sticking around for awhile. In the next few years, Abelson anticipates a gradual shift back toward yoga’s roots.
“I think the industry will settle back into a place where the tradition of yoga, the history behind it, becomes important again,” she says. “We’re going to recognize that the practice has deep, ancient roots that are really important in modern times.”